Four Questions With Rowan Atkinson, Creator of "Bean"
by Brandon Judell
How many English language films can say, “To hell with America!”? Very few.
Basically only “Bean“, which has already racked up over $100 million before
the picture has even unspooled in one New Jersey mall.
Mr. Rowan Atkinson is best known in our country, especially by those
incapable of locating PBS with their remote, as the awkward priest in “Four Weddings And A Funeral“. To remedy this situation, indieWIRE, with a few
inarticulate members of the press, recently sat down with the star.
indieWIRE: Is there a line connecting Chaplin’s Tramp to your Bean? And do
you feel your Bean is a character of his times since he’s so asexual, and
nowadays there’s such fear of copulation because of AIDS?
Rowan Atkinson: I think they are all good observations. Actually, I think
there are a lot of parallels to be drawn generally. There seems to be lines
and links you can make between virtually every successful visual comedy
character. There’s something about visual comedy.
When you find a good medium, by which I mean a character to present and
project visual comedy, they seem to be loners. They seem to be largely
asexual. They seem to be sort of childlike. They seem to be naive. Whether
it’s Benny Hill or Mr. Bean or Charley Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Stan
I think Chaplin was far more romantic. He had sort of a softer heart than
Bean naturally. I think Bean is a rather harsher, sort of more contemporary
character. I think he can be, not nasty actually, but as nasty as Chaplin
was. The Tramp had a very kind of vindictive side to him when he wanted it,
and Bean is certainly, potentially, extremely vindictive but sort of
selfish, self-centered, you know, looking after number one.
As to whether they reflect their time, I don’t really know. I’m not up on
social history enough to know to what degree the Tramp reflected his age
and the degree to which Bean reflects ours. Undoubtedly, Bean is a very
unromantic figure. I never regarded him as a sexual or even a romantic
figure. I always regarded his extremes as very funny, his extremely
politically incorrect attitude towards women which is if they can cook and
iron well then they’re good women. But apart from that, they very little
But at the same time, I feel a tremendous distance. I find I can turn him
on and off like a tap. There’s absolutely no remnant at the end of the day,
no remnant Beanism which stays with me. Also, I don’t have to build up to
the point at which I turn him on.
iW: Where were you and what were you doing when you first found out
you were funny?
Atkinson: When I found out I was funny? I can’t remember really. I remember
vaguely, around the age of ten or eleven, standing in the front of my
classmates at school in the changing rooms, and entertaining them in some
way that thankfully I have forgotten. But anyway, whatever it was, I
remember them laughing a great deal. But then within a year or two,
adolescence starts in and the appropriate self-consciousness was with me,
and I never did it again actually. So class clown I was not.
iW: The “Black Adder” series, at least by some standards, is highbrow
comedy. You have to know a little about English history to appreciate
the carryings-on. Bean, by contrast, it can be argued, although I
personally disagree, is on the cutting edge of complete lowbrow
obnoxiousness. Some naysayers claim he’s the ultimate slobbering kind of
repulsive character. A sort of a new standard of nastiness.
Atkinson: You’re absolutely right in your analysis. Bean is extremely broad
in his appeal. The comedy is terribly simple. Luckily it also makes him
extremely accessible. So in commercial terms, it makes sense. But it is not
sophisticated comedy. It is not remotely literary. Those of a more literary
bent, those who love words and writing and books and all those sorts of
things, frequently find it difficult to appreciate Bean. In the end, they
regard the “Bean” show as just kind of so lacking in irony and sort of verbal
wit. Clearly he’s lacking verbal wit if the man doesn’t say anything.
iW: In the film, Mr. Bean has the longest speech of his career. Since
his character’s main trait is his aversion to language, was this section of
the film difficult to write?
Atkinson: Yes. It was written and rewritten and rewritten. It was by far
the most difficult speech, as you might expect, to write of the whole movie
because for the first time really. . . It’s interesting. Visual comedy is
probably something that you were born with. It actually has very much to do
with your ability to express yourself bodily. Where your ability to express
yourself verbally is something that you’ve learnt since birth. Speech is
all about education and background and family life, and you know what has
occurred to you, and your knowledge and your appreciation of the world.
As soon as Bean started to speak, you start asking questions about what
does he know? What does he know about the situation in Bosnia? What does he
know about Clinton or the campaign funds or whatever the topic stories of
the day are? Has he ever read a newspaper? Does it indicate anything about
As soon as he’s asked to speak, it indicates a certain knowledge and
understanding of the world is going to be revealed. Obviously in this case,
he wasn’t talking about anything in particular except the world of art, but
nevertheless it’s fascinating to know what does he know. Does he have any
views on it at all?
And, of course, it turns out that he knows absolutely nothing which is
appropriate. His view of the world is really very simplistic and childlike.
The fact is that the overriding impression that he’s had of Whistler’s
“Mother” is of a mad, old cow who looks as though she’s had a cactus lodged
up her backside.
[Brandon Judell is the lead film critic for Critics Inc. on America Online
and a contributing editor to Detour Magazine. His new book is “The Gay Quote Book” (Dutton). He has also written for The Village Voice, The Advocate, and
Rodale’s Guide to Weight Loss.]